Your mid wants a liner

The two biggest complaints folks have with floorless pyramid shelters are lying with the creepy crawlies in the dirt, and rubbing up against condensation on the walls.  The first complaint is largely, though not entirely, a matter of changing context and expectation.  The second is a serious issue that can be both a nuisance and a hazard, and I would suggest is right now inadequately addressed by virtually all makers of backpackable mids (read: those with a canopy weight of 32 oz or less).

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There’s an easy though not definitive solution to the condensation issue: liners.  Unless they are truly enormous vents don’t do much to reduce condensation in mids.  If there is enough air circulation (i.e. wind) to make them effective condensation is usually not so bad anyway.  Ditto for the common tactic of raising the hem well off the ground.  The weather shedding shape which makes mids so effective in severe weather just doesn’t do well promoting air circulation.  Change the design to make that happen, and you’ll inherently compromise weather resistance.  Mids are a good quiver of one because they’re geared towards the worst weather most backcountry travelers will experience (ask Jaakko about shelters for polar travel), but when many people buy a mid or tipi, they overpurchase.

Back to liners; my first experience was early this year in a Seek Outside 4 man tipi, and it was a true head slapper moment.  A simple half liner of simple, non-coated nylon turns half your mid into a double walled tent.  As shown below, condensation (or frost) collects on the inside of the silnylon, while the liner (and thus the sleeping bag or head of anyone who rubs against it) stays dry.  Dead simple, pretty darn light, and effective.  The dead air space created also adds a small amount of warmth, though in windy conditions the deflection inherent in mids and the fact that a liner isn’t a true double wall largely erases that benefit.

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So far as I can tell, half liners were invented (like modern PU and later silnylon tipis) by Patrick Smith, at Kifaru.  Interestingly, this mention of liners says that Kifaru began their development when they started working with sil in 2003-2004, intimating that condensation is worse with a silicone coating.  All my mid experience is post-sil, and I’d be interested in further thoughts or experience with that particular question.

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In any case, the functionality of a liner is beyond question, which is why I made one for our Little Bug Out.  Simple 1.1 oz uncoated, uncalendered nylon to maximize breathability while minimizing weight and cost.  It doesn’t need to go all the way to the peak, nor all the way to the hem.  This one required a bit less than 4 yards of fabric, as well as adding four loops, one of each seam, 10 inches below the peak.  Total weight added, 5.5 ounces.  It only impinges on the interior room a tiny big, and not having to keep away from the walls adds, rather than takes away from, the functional space.  I’d like to see a few companies, ideally with folks who do better with >30 inch seams than I do, offer something similar.  They’re cheap and easy to make, and offer a more useful performance bump than the floors and bug nets which seem obligatory.

Mid devotees with a bit of sewing skill should try one out.

Rab Windveil, windshirt evolution

I’ve written a lot about windshirts over the years, because they’re the most versatile piece of outdoor clothing.  When it comes to the range and frequency of appropriateness, nothing else comes close.  Until waterproof breathable laminates make vast strides in breathability, this will remain the case.  The only question is which windshirt will suit you best.

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A decade ago windshirts largely came in one form, the best example being the Patagonia Dragonfly/Houdini.  Woven nylon shells in the 1-1.5 oz/yard range with a DWR and minimal feature set repelled lots of weather without being too hot, and packed down small enough that their was no real penalty associated with bringing one along.  Their shortcomings were first, as mentioned above, a level of water repellancy too low to serve as a meaningful substitute for a hardshell, and second, a level of breathability which was often far too low.  This last became an especially relevant issue when we moved to Montana 9 years ago, and colder temps and high humidity levels made moisture accumulation in my baselayer a more frequent and serious concern.  I went through the Patagonia Traverse, Rab Boreas, and others before finally landing on the Black Diamond Alpine Start.  The Alpine Start has been ideal, largely because it has the lightest fabric of the all the highly breathable, “soft shell” windshirts I’ve tried.  Making fabrics lighter without loosing function is the now of outdoor garments.

The Alpine Start, and soft shell windshirts generally, do have shortcomings.  For one, even the AS absorbs more water and is heavier and bulkier than traditional windshirts.  For another, there are occasions when more windproofing is wanted, particularly in drier places where humidity is low, and the probability of not having a hardshell around for massive wind is greater.  In other words, our current desert locale is a good place for a conventional windshirt.  Last, the Alpine Start continues to have fit and tailoring issues (shortish torso and sleeves, slightly baggy, funny neck and hood) which make it less than ideal.  So when I happened upon a discounted Rab Windveil last fall on our way back from the Colorado housing scout, I knew it would prove a worthy investment.

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The Windveil is cut from the same pattern (literally, I would guess) as the Rab Cirrus.  Same skinny torso, same long sleeves, same drop tail, same great hood, same nice chest pockets.  Perfect fit and feature set, in my book.  The new Microlight, which bears little resemblance to the heavier stuff used in the older Montane Litespeed, is as light as the Cirrus’ Pertex Quantum, but quite a bit more breathable, and surprisingly comfortable against the skin.  The smaller packed size, enhanced wind resistance, and especially trimmer fit has had me grabbing it more and more often, particularly on windy days and for mountain biking.

Rab claims the “Super DWR” used on the Windveil will “last the life of the garment”, which in turn apparently led Outdoor Gear Lab to claim this DWR as permanent.  If true this would be exciting, but it appears to be a mere marketing exaggeration.  Having a more durable DWR is good, but as my windshirts have always gotten a lot of use, and therefore more frequent laundering, I’ve always had their DWR wash out before the rest of the garment died.  File truly a truly permanent DWR windshirt, such as the better performing Epics in a lighter package, as one of the areas where more growth in the windshirt market would be nice.  For the moment, it will do to appreciate the continued bending of the breathability and weather protection curve.  We can have both in one to an extent not possible, and hardly considered, a decade ago.

 

Backpack problems, and answers

In the last few months I’ve had impetus from several directions to hit the reset button on backpacks as completely as possible.  Shake off and re-examine as many assumptions as possible before I put them into practice.  This bag, and this post, are only a first step towards that end.

Problem 1: Seams are the enemy.

Seams create weak points and add weight, bulk, and (potentially) complication.  Testing has confirmed my years-old assumption that burly fabrics will rip stitches, while weaker fabrics will rip from stitch hole to stitch hole.  Tuning thread to suit the fabric and reinforcing seams can mitigate but not do away with these issues.  The complication is that bag shaping is a vital factor in making a pack which carries, wears, and uses well.  For the bag below I went back to the roots of the 610 pack and copied my original design as closely as possible.  It sure carries well, and after a few years of love affairs with zippers its not so bad to have a simple top loader that demands some thought in packing, and doesn’t mind sand (this last highly relevant in the desert, and much less so in NW Montana).  It would be possible to make this design with fewer inches of seam overall, but only by adding significantly to the complication and construction difficultly.  Vertical seams are simple, easy to reinforce and if you eschew binding tape in favor of big seam allowances which can be folded and top stitched, pretty darn resistant.  A bag this tall and skinny is a specialist tool for ultralight mountain backpackers and canyon hikers, and really not the most versatile design.

Larger bags, with suitable compression, are more open to compromise.

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Problem 2: Lightweight fabrics which are durable enough for real world longevity.

I’ve written far too often and in many places that lightweight fabrics are not the most efficient way to make a light backpack, and with decently spare designs hardly ever having more than 2 yards once everything is added up (reinforcements, belt, harness, etc) this is true.  But weight is still weight and pack fabrics remain one of the more common areas where fat could be rendered.  This post has been one of my most read, ever, since I published it over three years ago, and while the specific options have expanded, the landscape has not much changed.  And probably won’t until someone starts using woven dyneema in a way where they aren’t obliged to upcharge the hell out of it.  (One wonders if HMG changed their whole 4400 line to woven what the net effect would be on price, over 3 years.)  For my own use, the varieties of 210 denier D-P laminate remain the point where fabric is too light.  I made the body of my fatbike framebag, usually a fairly low impact area, out of X21RC, and the damn thing has a little hole after less than a month.  From what, I could not say.  This is evidence of a divide which will always exist in the different types of durability different people demand; X21 does fine in all but the nastiest brush, but get it close to pointy rocks at it wilts like a rose hit with Fluroxypyr.

The pack pictured here is make mainly from a prototype fabric (the coyote tan stuff), which is a 330 denier Cordura with a very thick PET laminate.  The company in question called me last spring and asked for my thoughts on the ideal pack fabric.  In summary, my feedback was to make X33 without the X-ply, perhaps a thicker film, no backer, and in a nice lighter earth tone.  They delivered, and M and I happily used packs made from it all last summer (seen in action here among other places).  It remains the best pack fabric I’ve used.  I now possess all of what remains from the test run, and am putting it to use very sparingly.  Said company is looking for a party interested enough to invest in a larger production run, and if any reader fits that description, they should email me so I can set up a conversation that might put more of this stuff out into the world.

The reinforcement patches shown are plain PU coated 330 denier Cordura, in a lovely dark dark green that photos poorly put sets off the coyote nicely in natural light.  Laminate fabrics (D-P and hybrid cuben, essentially) have many virtues when used in backpacks, but aren’t the holy grail.  Truly good PU coatings come close when it comes to waterproofing, and hardly anyone is in a position to really comment on how the heavier laminate fabrics will stack up in terms of delamination.  Probably not a pragmatic concern for many, but if light hybrid cuben can start to delam in under a year of heavy use, one has to assume the burly stuff will eventually.  The nice thing for the moment is that the relative scarcity of laminate fabrics and their place as a premium product has kept quality high.  Trying to source good PU Cordura in small batches is a roll of the dice, whereas one can buy X33 or X50 and know all aspects are top shelf.

The reason for the reinforcement patches on the base and sides of this pack are to experiment with how light a fabric will stand up to hard canyon use.  I shredded a simple X51 bag in about 7 total hours of use doing this back in December, and the numerous were all exclusively due to harder things (rope, waterbottle, full drybag) pressing from the inside.  Theses reinforcement patches are 1/4″ bigger than the main body panels, which will hopefully deflect pressure and allow the fabric to perform closer to its potential.

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Problem 3: Enough suspension, but not too much.

At this point, any time I have a hipbelt on a backpack I want some form of rigidish (read, metal) suspension, well anchored.  There are acute limits to just chucking a center stay in, but there are also very substantive benefits, and not that severe a weight penalty.  I was genuinely shocked two weekends ago to see just how vague the connection between the stays and harness elements of the HMG 4400 packs are, testament I deem to how low the bar is in this department.  The trick isn’t just to make a decently stiff without having to add too much weight in the form of supporting and connecting elements, it is to build the proper amount of play into that frame (which is probably why the HMG system is so beloved).  There are plenty of options available for massive loads, and some decent ones for light loads, but it seems to me that the middle ground of 30-50 pounds still needs attention.

Carbon will remain problematic until a company can invest in proper molds and manufacturing which can produce a contoured product that won’t break.  Stone Glacier and Zpacks have, in very different directions, taken straight carbon as far as it can go.  That the former is adding 6 ounces to the stays alone just to achieve a modicum of curve should tell us something about the limitations of a straight frame.

For this pack, I put on thick shoulder straps, an external pad sleeve, and inside the sleeve loops to attach a webbing hipbelt.  90% of the time I won’t use a belt, but it is a good option, and a removable pad adds just the right amount of structure.

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Problem 4: Closures

I have a profoundly mixed relationship with roll tops.  On the one hand they’re clean, weatherproof, provide vertical compression without extra straps, and are the easiest closure to sew (one of the reasons they’re so popular).  On the other, they’re fiddly and require buckles, which are the next enemy after seams, and a more intractable one.  I tried a drawcord and top strap on this one, and am not sure I like it.  In theory it’s faster and allows for overflow capacity, but I’m not sure that theory holds water any more.  There is a large extent to which chasing “easy” closures and quick access ends up being a half-assed solution for organization on the part of the user.

Problem 5: Side pockets

Side pockets on packs are a horrid nuisance.  Slapping on a flat panel of stretch fabric is the simplest solution, and one which actually works pretty well until they get shredded.  Fabric pockets are tougher, and if abrasion against rocks is not much of a concern making them huge and putting them all the way against the bottom seam should guarantee good access and plenty of capacity.  My problem is that I don’t always want side pockets.  In canyons they get destroyed, and they interfere with the placement of compression straps, and the attachment of things such as skis.  Is there a way to make them modular while not sucking?  That is the next project.

Patagonia Sun Stretch shirt review

DSC01351As I mentioned last week, there are some, stifling hot, occasions when even the lightest knit baselayers aren’t up to the task.  The latest light (100 grams/meter or less) poly baselayers dry fast, but there’s something about the wicking process upon which modern poly shirts depend that just doesn’t get the job done in serious heat.  Too much moisture is left against the skin, while at the same time the fabric minimizes any benefit you might get from evaporative cooling.  I’ve used poly/cotton dress shirts for quite some time, with a fair degree of success, but after a few days they get nasty and chafe.  More seriously, they are one trick critters.  In anything other than darn hot weather they’ll be in your pack, which during an extended summer rain interlude can mead you’re hauling around a damp ball of slime until the solar gets cranking again.

Patagonia’s Sun Stretch shirt is a, and perhaps for the moment the, solution to this problem.  Made from a 52%/48% nylon/poly woven, the Sun Stretch takes the traditional trekking/fishing/safari shirt and builds it from truly light fabric, namely 76 grams/meter.  This light a fabric just can’t absorb much water, which has been a big knock against 100% nylon wovens. The poly percentage also helps with breathability and a pleasant and fairly non-synthetic against the skin feel, the other reason why until now woven shirts have never graced my baselayer closet.  Because it’s a woven and not a knit, the fabric doesn’t actively seek to suck moisture off your skin, which paradoxically helps in very hot weather by letting evaporative cooling do its thing. The Sun Stretch is not the ideal tool for cold weather, but when moisture transport and overall mitigation is a major concern, it isn’t too much of a liability, either.

Limitations are few. First, it comes in Patagonia’s “relaxed” fit, which means that to get good sleeve length you’ll need to put up with a overly voluminous torso. I’m fortunate in that I can fit into a small, with only the littlest hint of shoulder tightness, and could thus find one on sale. I can tolerate the slightly short sleeves. My vote would be for more conventional sizing. The second limitation is that the stink factor, while far from terrible, is not what we’ve come to expect in the age of Polygiene. With blazing fast dry times it’d still be a good travel shirt, but it would need frequent sink washings to maintain a good margin of social acceptability, especially in the first world.

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Detailing and construction quality is typical Patagonia, which is to say quite good. The chest pockets are capacious, the zippers both smooth running and small enough in coil to be unobtrusive. The buttons are sewn on, but plenty thick and feel well attached. Little details, like shoulder articulation and buttons to hold up the sleeves, are all present.  I wouldn’t mind a stiffer collar that would stand up for sun protection, but that’s a small issue.

Fit and nitpicks aside I could happily have this and the Sitka Core hoody as my only next to skin layers, year round.  The Sun Stretch is particularly nice in that it can work backpacking or mountain biking, and transfer to a rural burger joint without too thoroughly screaming; I’m a “technical” yuppie goon.  Taken together the Sun Stretch and Core hoody over 200 dollars worth of shirt, but if you’re going for quality and longevity over quantity, they’d be my suggestion.

 

 

How my favorite gear will die

In the last six months I seem to be reaching a point where a bunch of my favorite gear, the stuff I love to use and have recommended without reservation, is wearing out.  Given that this process is for most (myself included*) quite rare and usually gradual and therefore apt to avoid direct attention, it seems valuable to discuss a bunch of things in detail, for future reference.

R0020602Like pants and socks, shoes are semi-disposable gear.  Which is not to say that preventative reinforcement with Seam Grip isn’t a good idea, one which will give you a hundred or more additional miles out of a given pair.

*Recent experience as convinced me that, regardless of how often or how broadly I might get out in the wild, I am relative to the majority of folks quite easy on my gear.  I have habits cultivated at an early age concerning good maintenance, and they’ve been ingrained for the years before LB came along and made unpacking far more arduous.  They also reflect the many years before I bought most things at an industry discount or bro deal, and are a good idea because even at half off a good down jacket or hard shell is quite expensive.  By my standards at least.

Werner Shuna

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My favorite piece ever?  Darn close, certainly.  In the first year, as wear marks accumulated on the blade edges, I assumed the fiberglass blades would eventually delaminate into oblivion, but nearly six years in that seems no closer than it was after six months.  Those blades are damn tough.  What has happened is that the center joint has loosened just a hair, something which was vastly accelerated by strapping them outside the pack for most of this trip (as they just didn’t fit).  The lesson here is twofold; use a pack big enough to fit all your gear with a bit of wiggle room, and that when I replace my paddle it will probably be due to preference rather than a structural issue.  Which certainly makes it one of the better gear investments one could make.

Haglofs Ozo

When I went to Alaska to do the Wilderness Classic in 2011 I fortuitously had at my disposal every WPB shell under 9 oz that was then on the market.  The Ozo was an easy choice, and to this day I’ve yet to find a hard shell I like as much.  Despite a thinness in the shoulder membrane visible the past few years, it has always kept me dry (enough).  And it still does, but the DWR can no longer get itself up to snuff, spray on or wash in or whatever.  WPB without a good DWR does little good, so as of a month or so ago the Ozo is officially retired.

Thermarest Prolite XS

I’ve been quite mean to this pad for the past six years.   Far more often than not it’s been used directly on the ground, and very often as a packraft seat.  In 2014 I put a small hole in it, which was easily patched with Aquaseal.  On the most recent trips it’s deflated quite a bit during the night, enough to be both uncomfortable and cold.  I haven’t yet put it in the tub, but I expect it to be riddled with unpatchable microholes.  Given that degree of reliability, I’ll probably buy another, and soonish.  Ridgerests on slickrock are no fun.

Seek Outside LBO

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(This applies to all shelters made from quality sil.)  Currently the LBO is pitched in the backyard, weathering graupel and 25 mph gusts, with a few dots of silnet hopefully drying.  I put it up for LB and I to play in, and noticed three tiny holes, two seemingly from stove embers and one from the abrasion of a low lying stick.  Aside from these this 3+ year old shelter might as well be brand new.  So long as I don’t let sand kill the zippers, I expect the LBO to last for a decade or more, and or UV to kill it, which points to the importance of picking good shelters that will grow with you and suit many needs.  This ‘mid weathered (and well) the worst storm I’ve ever been in, and I currently think it’s the best one SO makes.  The peak height to footprint ratio is just right, tall enough to shed wind and snow (especially the later, the Cimarron is a bit short for me)) but not so tall relative to the width that achieving optimal stake angles in loose soil is problematic (4 man).  It’s small enough to fit a lot of places, but big enough for the three of us and gear.  Point being, it makes sense to do homework and get what you really want, whomever you buy from.

Gossamer Gear grips

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My perfect trekking poles are hanging tough, but the grips are going to have to be replaced well before anything else.  Getting a good glue plug that will resist pressure over years is the key, something I did better with one pole than the other.  I’ll publish an improved tutorial when I replace them, but the state of these goes to show why most companies go with more durable, and much heavier and less comfortable, grips.

Western Mountaineering Ultralite

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Our Ultralite is 12 years old, and while it’s been used a ton in that time, M and I haven’t come close to putting the nights in a thruhiker, or guide or other professional would in the same time.  Down can be washed often, which is needed to preserve down loft, but that washing does come with a cost.  The Ultralite isn’t quite a full as it once was, and that before I singed a bunch of holes on a wood stove back in January.  The Ultralite isn’t close to the end of it’s life, but at some point (5 years?) the loft and warmth won’t quite be there and it will be to be replaced.  Again, a great investment and one I would make again without hesitation.

LaSportiva TX3 snap judgment

For reasons discussed below, the LaSportiva TX3 has been on my radar since it came out last year. I received a pair for Christmas, and since then have taken them down a handful of technical slot canyons and on some dayhikes. What follows are my first impressions concerning why they promise to be an excellent shoe for canyon backpacking.

Approach shoes have always had a lot going for them, as well as some serious limitations that for backpacking and longer distance hiking were often all but fatal.  The most egregious is the narrow toebox, which prior to the TX series was all but universal to the genre.  Skinny forefeet creating pressure does indeed make climbing shoes edge well and smear precisely, but I’ve often wondering if the chunkier, more hiking oriented approach shoes didn’t have enough weight and midsole structure that narrow toeboxes weren’t wasted effort.  In 2009 and 2010 I spent a lot of time in Montrails Car to Car, a shoe which shared the big rand and runner’s heal of the TX3, but on long days always killed my feet with inadequate forefoot room and harsh midsole.

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The TX3s have a significantly wider forefoot than any approach shoe I can recall.  Coupled with the burly rand and stout midsole, the feel of the shoe is unique, and in technical terrain confidence inspiring.  They’re stiff enough to heel-toe in slots with minimal foot crunch, the rubber is sticky, and the tread just deep enough to grip well in loose dirt (though I would expect it to do poorly in mud.  Based on initial outings, the shoe seems tough enough to have a useful service life.

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It is worth emphasizing that the TX3 is a stiff shoe.  For this reason I think I’ll like it as a backpacking shoe, when I have a heavy or heavyish pack on, and in technical slots where stiffness prevents foot abuse.  They seem less desirable as a dayhiking shoe, for the same reason.  I’m not sure how many Sportiva will sell to climbers, but for canyon hikers I am optimistic that the TX3 is the best thing to come along in quite some time.

Three trends from 2017 Winter OR

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Sasha photobombs Luke’s beer.

When I first attended OR last year I expected to hate it, as consumerism and massive groups of strangers are two thing with which I have little patience.  I didn’t, in fact I enjoyed it, and while the first day of the winter show today was less novel and captivating due to repetition and being a bit smaller, I still had a good time.  Part of this, both times, has been in my work companion Luke, whose knowledge and interest is as comprehensive as my own.  Which is a rare thing, in 4 out of 5 booths today we could have told the reps about their own products.  The other part is that outdoor gear and the outdoor industry is, warts included, something in which I believe quite a lot.

Most of my coverage is on the Seek Outside blog, with a few oddments below.

Trend 0.0: Broism/Lifestyle

OR is above all else about selling stuff to other people within the outdoor industry, which is a big tent.  Yeti continues to show the industry how to market. They had Hopper soft coolers on sale for $150 mid-afternoon on the first day, and had a very long line of takers. We saw them all that afternoon and evening.

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That said, the retailer part of OR will plainly need to change in the next decade or so as internet sales and the extra cost associated with a retail middle person continue to drive more companies to do more and more of their business online.  The general public is not allowed in OR, and some of the big guys keep most of their stuff behind closed doors, up on the second floor (literally), or on the other side of bouncers (literally).  Crowd control is one thing, but fighting against publicity seems in the end to be besides the point.  It’s still a rad experience for the true gear geek, and could easily continue to grow with minor alterations.

Trend 1: Skimo

Skimo and “fitness” skiing remains a big area of growth, with lots of interesting stuff.  I forgot to take photos of the Voile Objective BC, but it feels every bit as light, stiff, and high quality as initial hopes made it out to be.  Top pick for distance-oriented alpine backcountry.

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Dynafit’s best backcountry ski binding now comes in two different release ranges, a good step towards having light, practical bindings with dependable  (for your weight) release.

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Scarpa’s Alien continues to have the free-est walk mode of any boot, including Dynafit and Sportiva, but that comes at the expense of openings in the shell.  The Alien RS solves these issues, and looks good doing it, but seems a bit less flexible.  Still a very solid option.

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A/the big issue with the first generation of LaSportiva skimo boots was a lower buckle that flipped open while booting.  The new buckle looks to fix that nicely, and is user removeable!  Sportiva sells these separately, and I’m sorely tempted to retrofit my old Siderals.

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Dynafit ski wall showing the rocker and sidecut profile which has become common amongst backcountry skis, and the color palate of the hour.

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 Trend 2: Active Insulation

Polartec Alpha (and the like) has been around for a while now.  It’s fashionable and almost everyone is building with it.  Most of those efforts look like one of the two pieces which defined the category, either the Patagonia Nanoair (stretch face, more breathable) or the Rab Strata (tougher, more windproof face).

Rab seems to be leading the way in new directions, using Alpha Direct (no lining at all) in a number of jackets, including a sweater which is just plain Alpha Direct (below).  It looks and feels like an even looser, fluffier version of Polartec Hi Loft fleece, and should I assume perform similarly.  That is to say, warmer and more breathable for the weight than traditional fleece, and less durable.  Lifespan will be an interesting question, especially when frequently worn without a shell.  The new Vapour Rise Guide has zoned Alpha Direct (with the traditional tricot in other areas) under the trademark Pertex Equilibrium shell.

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Overall folks seem to be admitting, though not out loud, that the traditional puffy jackets with very impermeable face fabrics and liners leave quite a bit to be desired.  The lack of breathability makes them much less comfortable in many cases, and often functionally colder due to poor moisture management.  Hence the rise of active insulation and the  return (quietly) of fleece, like the his and hers 200ish (left) and 300ish weight jackets from Brooks Range shown above.  Down still holds all the cards when it comes to pure warm/weight, but skiers, people who get out in cold weather, and especially people who run cold should check out the various permutations of active insulation and improved fleece.

Trend 3: Old stuff is back

Back in the day I used a six liter Dromedary bag for everything.  Partly because I lived in the desert and needed to carry lots of water, and partly because I was paranoid and liked too much water and overly bomber gear.  Around 8 years ago the Dromedary material became a little less burly, and I was sad.  While my two Droms stayed mostly dormant while we lived in Montana, they’re still ready to go now that they’re back in the desert.

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The new Dromedary bags are every bit as heavy and beefy as the OG version.  There are many lighter options, but when I’m a full days hike from the nearest water source, this is what I want to trust.

While the fashion side of the retro impulse has always been present in the outdoor industry, these visuals and an attempt at the substance behind them seems very strong in 2017.  Companies like Topo Designs aren’t just using a throwback aesthetic to sell shit, though they are doing that, they’re trying to recapture a time when going outside didn’t require so much expensive gear, planning, and forethought.  It doesn’t today, and probably wasn’t nearly as simple (or comfy) 40 years ago, but I can’t fault companies like that for trying to move however ungracefully towards emphasizing the experience of doing stuff over the fatness of ones closet.

2016; 10 photos

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The first thing I can remember about 2016 was not sleeping, at least not for more than 90 minutes at a stretch, in early January during Little Bear’s rather spectacular six month sleep regression, which coincidentally or not happened on a trip to Iowa.  That has been the first story of the year, the extent to which our life is no longer in our hands.  LB is maleable, and generally fairly simple (if not easy) to manage, but some times his development runs counter to what we might like.  And if I’m not sleeping well optional things like playing outside get cut.

The second thing I remember about 2016 was our Alpacka Double Duck, the trips we took in it, and especially our first big backpack/packraft outing with Little Bear in April.  It was the most intimidating trip I’d done in a number of years, and ended up being the most rewarding ever.  After spending the winter largely just trying to get by, those four days were evidence that we could do the things we wanted again, at least most of the time.

The rest of the year was an ongoing struggle between those two things.  Our backpack in August, for instance, which was hard and humbling, but which we managed anyway.  Or packing and then moving down to Colorado, which with a lot of very strategic family assistance we accomplished at the last minute, but with less stress and drama than I had anticipated.  It’s a theme which should continue this year, stronger than ever.  I now have what will probably be the best job I’ll ever have, one which both allows and requires me to spend lots of time away.  We’re in a position where I can easily ask M to be the full time parent, but that comes with the mind-altering nature of spending many hours alone with a toddler.  A very active toddler.  It’s a somewhat damning form of higher enlightenment to get what you want and realize that you’ll only want to partake of it partially.

But still, I can’t wait.

Seek Outside BT2 v. Silvertip

I do not think I could overstate how enjoyable, educational, and flattering the past month at my new job has been.  Enjoyable because the crew at Seek Outside operates with both integrity and joy in equal measure.  Educational because, whatever I may or may not know about using gear outside, there are many things about making and selling it I didn’t know I knew, and getting a new window into your lifelong passion is a rare thing.  And flattering because of the many personal contacts I’ve had.  Congratulatory ones written into orders, in person ones from friends stopping by, and surprise contact with readers over the phone.  In the past I’ve been thanked many times for my writing here, and even recognized in person by strangers (very occasionally), but the volume of the last four weeks is quite another thing.

It highlights the responsibility I now have, to everyone out there, my employers, my colleagues, my family, and myself.  There’s the irony that I’ve found a job at which I would cheerfully work 70 hours a week, just when we have a toddler in the house.  There will be the challenge, in the near future, to maintain the impossible separation between my official duties marketing and my public presence, here and elsewhere as an individual.  And most of all there will be the task of producing products as good as many seem to expect, and that I know we at Seek Outside can.  Just know that there is a long list of projects, and that nothing will go out into the world until it is ready.

img_2087My work day yesterday began in the dark, driving up into the canyons to do a training hike and get photos of how the BT2, which I have promoted aggressively here and elsewhere, and the revision of it which came out this fall, the Silvertip.  The BT2 was symmetrical, elegant, and utterly steady in wind and snow.  The interior was a bit on the short side for folks over 6 foot, especially on thick sleeping pads, so the Silvertip was revised to be longer, wider at the head and foot, and a little shorter (to better use fabric and make it possible to pitch with a single 145cm trekking pole).  The above photo shows the sum of these changes as best as I could capture, but it doesn’t show the substantial increase in interior space, which surprised even me the first time I got inside.  The BT2 has been my favorite shelter over the last two years, and the Silvertip should take over that role quite handily.

The heaviest iteration is shown above; with a stove jack and four extra guyouts added to the front and rear, and weighs a hair under 2 pounds.  The Silvertip comes stock with one on each side, in the center, and while I don’t expect the others to be necessary under almost any circumstances, thus far they’ve proven popular with the paranoid.  It is heavy for a two person shelter, but I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a more weatherproof shelter, of any persuasion, without going exponentially heavier.  The design is remarkably silent in moderate (~30 mph) winds, and with 12 ground level tieouts anchoring is generally not an issue.  It epitomizes the stuff I’m excited to be involved in making; light as thoughtfulness will allow, understated, totally dedicated to function, and promising a very long service life and high value.  Even after I crossed into getting free samples and pro deals on most things 275 bucks is still a lot of money.  In this case, I think most will find it cash well spent.

How to get free gear

I’m finally on the other side of the coin.  As one of the main folks at Seek Outside who sifts through and arbitrates requests for free stuff from the media and general public, I have in the last few weeks gotten to sit in the seat I used to be looking at from a distance, as a writer for both this blog and other more organized publications.  What follows are a few suggestions for those who might want to mooch (“request samples”) in the near future, particularly from a smaller company like ours whose production is entirely domestic.

My new MTI Vibe PFD, which I asked for and was sent free, is a decent example.  I saw the Vibe at OR this past August, was impressed, and told the rep at the booth as much.  I wrote a post here which got a lot of traffic, and sent a lot of traffic MTI’s way.  A few weeks later I sent the same rep an email expressing interest in mooching one.  She expressed a preference to give me an initial production sample, due in a few months.  I responded that this would make for good timing, as I’d have just moved to a place with unfrozen water, and could put the PFD to immediate and good use.  I made good on my word, and as of this writing a version of our Gunny Gorge packraft video is up on the product page.

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All of that is to say that when properly done mooching can be mutually beneficial, and indeed lack in parasitic attributes almost entirely.  I gave MTI press of consequence, and in a market they’d do well to have a bigger presence, and I got a free toy I could put to use in something I would have been doing anyway.  An ideal scenario.  This example also points to the extent to which this is an insiders game, I obviously would have had a harder time getting things started without being at OR, an insiders-only event by definition (though it’s gotten a lot easier for small-time bloggers to get media passes).

While the cloistered myopia which often blankets the outdoor industry is properly regarded as detestable, their is a large extent to which the insiders mentality makes sense.  Specifically, that would be the first rule of getting free stuff: have credibility.  In the youtube era the number of “gear reviewers” is nothing short of appalling, and while unboxing videos may drive traffic that traffic is shallow.  Clicks this week and long term growth are not the same thing.  Big companies with manufacturing in Asia and retail markups in excess of 50% can afford to use a shotgun approach to publicity.  Smaller companies cannot, and the first two questions I’ll consider if your request to mooch comes up on my screen are do you know what you want to talk about, and will you communicate it effectively.

This actually gives little guys the advantage.  Big publications, especially print media backed by multinationals, may have large followings and a big voice, but that reach tends to be shallow and the probability with which their coverage inspires action (e.g. buying stuff) low.  People, especially people who are going to spend the big money a company like ours ask them to spend, want comprehensive information.  Last week I had a editor from a major, longstanding outdoor magazine tell me that their status as a paper publication precluded them from doing the longer form, online review sites I had compared his magazine to, in the course of asking him to explain why his was for us the better investment.  It is both nonsensical and a terrible, explicable irony that the old guard, tied to add revenue and circulation numbers, must compete for numbers in a race to the bottom as far as material quality and attention span are concerned.  It begs the question of who is worse off, online niche publications with their vague financial models, or print magazines with their increasingly bankrupt content?

Which brings us to the second rule of getting free stuff; have integrity.  At BPL our review disclaimer used to say that items were accepted from a company with no obligation to publish anything.  Editorially this makes a certain amount of sense, especially in a world where company-sponsored gear release trips are often used to buy gear of the year awards and the like.  But on a personal level it is bullshit.  At even the biggest company actual people put a lot of their selves into designing and making something, and if they give that to you for free it is a moral imperative to be respectful.  Even if the items existence doesn’t make much sense to you.

At the same time, quality content is important for a company.  I’m disinclined to send free stuff to a big magazine because they might have it for six months before producing a 180 word blurb stuffed in a sidebar.  I’m similarly disinclined to send something to Joe’s Survival and SUL carpet-testing blog, because he only has 200 instagram followers and just as seriously said feed lack any outdoor photos beyond those taken in his backyard.  Good social media gives just as many referrals as a quality write up in a major publication.  Individuals who provide good exposure (and are doing inspiring stuff) are just as valuable as magazines with a track record of integrity and good grammar.

To summarize, try to earn what you ask for.  The internet is a great democratizer, and that has done many of us incalculable favors, but that should not cheapen achievement, on either side of the gear selling coin.